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Flathead cherry mystery

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The Flathead cherry harvest has ended, and, curiously, although significantly fewer workers showed up, the harvest proved larger than last year’s.

Todd Erickson, migrant worker coordinator for Lake County Job Service in Polson, says pickers told him turnout was low due to talk of increased federal illegal immigrant busts in Washington state by the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), successor to the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

ICE announced the start of “Operation Endgame,” which aims to catch 400,000 fugitive illegal aliens in the U.S., in April.

Almost all of the Flathead’s Mexican immigrant cherry pickers come from Washington state, and are legally required to fill out W-4 and I-9 forms.

But “even the legal workers were hesitant to travel over here because they just didn’t want to go through the hassle of having their documentation checked and all that stuff,” Erickson says, adding that worker turnout was down roughly 40 percent from years past.

The crop, however, was a different story. Brian Campbell, Montana field representative for Washington’s Monson Fruit Company, the major Flathead cherry-buyer, says the harvest was up about a third from last year, totaling approximately 3.25 million pounds of cherries purchased by his company alone.

“I guess that indicates you can do it with fewer workers,” Campbell says.

How, exactly, did so many fewer workers manage to pick so many more cherries?

“My take on that is that when the harvest ended from the south, the growers and the migrant workers networked and just moved over to that next orchard,” says Erickson.

In other words, there was very little “down time” for pickers between jobs.

“Some pickers were here for the full 24 days [of the harvest],” says Campbell, “so they had a good year, the ones that showed up.”

For most orchard owners, how the feat was pulled off is of less concern than the fact that it was accomplished at all.

As Barbara Hammons of the Flathead Lake Cherry Growers Association puts it: “It got done regardless.”

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